Adapting for Climate Change

Strongylocentrotus purpuratusThe ICR is not fond of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, having argued against it in a number of past articles. Indeed there is significant overlap, at least in the United States, between those who would deny climate change and evolution – though it is not entirely clear whether or not they have a common, theological cause. This position naturally colours Brian Thomas’ latest article, Spiny Sea Creature Rapidly Accommodates Chemical Changes.

The paper he’s talking about is Natural variation and the capacity to adapt to ocean acidification in the keystone sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, in Global Change Biology – it’s not open access, but Brian helpfully links to a press release which gives most of the details. In summary increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which is, at this point, an utterly inarguable fact – pose a less well known problem for the biosphere: it will lead to more acidic oceans. This is bad for sea creatures, most directly so for those that incorporate calcium carbonate into their exoskeletons. The sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus is one such organism, and it is considered a keystone species meaning that it has an effect on its ecosystem disproportionate to its actual abundance – urchins becoming less common would not be a good thing (though neither would having more of them).

This sea urchin, which lives on the west coast of North America from northern Mexico to southern Alaska, is exposed to varying levels of carbon dioxide naturally due to some places experiencing more cold water upwelling – which leads to higher concentrations – than others. This experiment took urchins from two sites with differing levels of upwelling, crossed them with each other presumably to produce the widest range of expressed variation, and measured their growth under very high CO2 levels. Larvae size was used as a proxy for “fitness,” i.e. how well the urchin coped with the conditions: a smaller larvae wasn’t doing as well as a larger one.

It was found that, under higher CO2 conditions, larvae were noticeably smaller than normal as expected. But there was also wide range of observed sizes, with some of the larvae actually having a normal length in spite of the conditions. They concluded that there was natural variation within the urchin population in terms of resistance to high CO2 levels, meaning that they have the capability to evolve to counter and mitigate its effects. Ocean acidification may not be quite as bad as previously thought.

The creationist response to this kind of thing is usually fairly predictable: it is a brave and foolhardy YEC who would deny the ability of populations to evolve at least a little bit, so they should have no problem. Thomas is a little different:

Some of the larvae the researchers raised in higher levels of acid “inherited a tolerance for higher CO2 levels.” Of course, they credited the creature’s ability to meet this environmental challenge through “rapid adaptation” to “evolution.”

But whether or not the larvae evolved through mutations and selection—the supposed engines of evolution—or some other internal mechanism is not yet known. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that God created urchins with an inherent potential to adjust their internal machinery to accommodate pH (acidity) changes.

Thomas provides no explanation of his “other internal mechanism,” and it’s not clear what it could possibly be. Remember, what was observed is that some of the urchins were able to grow normally in high CO2 conditions, and not that all urchins simply shrugged it off as might be expected in a more Lamarckian situation in which they all had an “inherent potential to adjust their internal machinery” for the purposes of survival.

Brian knows full well that evolution can explain this, and that it is exactly what would be expected. But still he resists, for reasons that are not clear:

Perhaps accidental mutations did confer acid tolerance to urchins. This has happened in the past, and it would be consistent with either a creation or an evolutionary way of thinking. But a well-designed self-adjusting process challenges evolutionary thinking.

He tries, poorly, to argue his case:

Preliminarily, two clues seem to signal a design rather than an accidental cause for the adjustment. First, the change occurred rapidly, as though an acid-response and adjustment system was already in place within the urchins. Second, the change precisely met the newfound need of the urchin offspring, and random changes rarely meet needs with precision.

He is chiefly mistaken in that he thinks that a change – and a “rapid” one – has happened. Instead the variation, produced by mutations, already existed but was only revealed in this experiment. The challenge was not “precisely met,” but instead some offspring inherited the right genes to endure in the conditions while others fell short to varying degrees.

Why does he take this view? I really don’t know, but it may have something to do with how the ICR really does not like natural selection. In the past they have described it as a “cruel, haphazard, inefficient, [and] wasteful process,” and

…flatly contradicted by the Biblical doctrine of love, of unselfish sacrifice, and of Christian charity. The God of the Bible is a God of order and of grace, not a God of confusion and cruelty.

The desperate search for an alternative explanation for observed adaptation might be responsible for the ICR’s idea that organisms have an “innate” ability to adapt, which I have termed “Guliuzzism.” But there is a problem: natural selection is inevitable in a case like this.

Some urchins survive and reproduce better under acidic conditions than other, and can pass this trait down to their offspring – that we have already determined. But it is an inescapable conclusion that these urchins will out-compete their brethren and become more prevalent in the population, and this phenomenon is called natural selection.

Yeast population over timeA paper cited by this one in support of the claim that “Evolution can happen on rapid (ecological) timescales, and can prevent extinction following environmental change” examined the same idea with yeast tolerance to salt. Placing yeast in high salt conditions caused a precipitous drop in population, with all but around 10% dying off. If, and only if, there existed in the population yeast that was capable of resisting the increased concentration of salt (whether because of pre-existing mutations, or mutations that had arisen during the experiment) the population could rebound and return to normal levels. If not, the yeast would go extinct. That’s a result of natural selection.

If you think that this is cruel, haphazard, inefficient, and wasteful, and that it contradicts important biblical doctrine, then that’s your own problem. You certainly don’t get to avoid it by flat-out denying the facts.

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5 thoughts on “Adapting for Climate Change

  1. Please do not confused YECism with global warming skepticism. Thousands of lefitimage scientists, including myself and a singificant number of climatologits and meteorologists, geologists, paleontologists, etc regard many of the claims of global warming alarmists as exaggerated at best. Among professional paleontologists, who I regularly associate with and who have an especially good long-term view of climate variations on earth, I believe (and would like to see a poll taken) at least have are global warming skeptics, in the sense that they believe 1. Most climate change is due to solar and cosmic factors, not human ones, 2. Any warming now is tiny compared with the many major cycles of warming and cooling in the past, and no, the rate is not that different either, and 3. None of the proposed solutions, which could have huge economic drawbacks, could affect any warming trend more than a percent or two, which causes me and others to argue against the measures. Ironically, we are geologically still in a cooling period, and any warming would help off set that. Moreover, there are good arguments to be made (which the alarmists will never mention) that there are more benefits than drawbacks to some warming, including longer growing seasons, more arable land, less heating costs, etc. Indeed, one major flaw in the whole global warming campaign is that it assumes that the earth is currently at its optimal temperature. The evidence actually shows that the earth and most life forms are actually somewhat better adapted to warmer temperatures, and the earth has on average been several degrees warmer than it is at present. It’s is also disturbing to me that several environmental groups are deliberately using false claims to drum up support for global warming alarmism and donations, such as the TV commercials implying polar bears are on the verge of extinction. The most thorough studies of polar bear populations in recent years show that they are doing fine, with most populations _increasing_. Thousands of other legitimate scientists share my sentiments on this, so again, please don’t lump us with creationist wackos.

    • Hmm, Id like to see this evidence you speak of. I’d also like to see a good case for the “thousands” and “significant numbers” of scientists who disagree with GW. Show me.

      …and just because you may not be a YEC, does no logically follow that you may not perhaps be suffering from some other sort of delusional psychosis, that precludes you or your pals, from appreciating the body of evidence that support GW. Wackos come in many shapes and sizes…(no personal accusations intended, I do not know you)

      Do not perceive this post as a threat to your position, but as an honest inquiry. I am somewhat agnostic on this thing, but lean towards the consensus that man made causes are indeed complicating what might other wise be a normal fluctuation. The amount of crap (and its effects are well documented) we are putting into the atmosphere is staggering either way, and needs to be ratcheted down, sooner the better, and the economy be damned. What good is an economy if its effects trend towards our own extinction? If you are going to make such bold claims as above, you need to back them up, with that stuff you should be familiar with…evidence. Especially concerning polar bears and dissenting scientists (against GW).

      Some questions, how would a longer growing season help when most harvested species have a specific growth cycle? (unless the growing season stretched to double its norm). Wouldn’t more arable land lead towards less habitat for already crowded species? Wouldn’t less heating costs transfer to more cooling costs? It is easy to speculate, without considering the consequences. One of the first things you learn in 5th grade science “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, that needn’t always refer to laws of motion.

    • I share Glen’s thoughtfully stated perspectives. I am not a Global Warming/Change denier, I am a godless (atheist) Global Warming/Change INEVITABLIST, because that is what the Biosphere’s global climate history since near the end of the PreCambrian tells me — namely, that the present global temperature is a rarely-maintained temperature experienced only briefly (geological-timewise) just six times in the last 600-700 million years, and each time it was either on its way down to something a tad cooler (“ice-ages”) or on its way back up to something significantly warmer; that MOST of the last 600-700 million years global temperatures have been much warmer (and sea levels much higher; and that for the last 12,000+ years global temperatures have been trending warmer. ( See the chart at http://www.scotese.com/climate.htm )

      I recognize and acknowledge human domestic and industrial CO2 and other emissions are now (and since the beginning of the industrial revolution) significant contributors in the mix along with other events and processes that have shaped past global climate and will likely similarly shape future global climate; indeed we humans likely do steepen the slope of the present (though lumpy, as is most any) natural trend (especially if some of the other natural contributers to the overall global climate dynamic are on the wane or “idle” for the moment) — but it does seem to me that maybe, just maybe, our present state of understanding of the total, colossally complex global climate dynamic may not be quite as complete and as ready for the intense politicization that it is receiving as a majority of Earth and climate scientists seem to think it.

      And maybe it is as complete and as “settled science” as it is being intensely politicized — I freely acknowledge that I am not an expert in the relevant areas of science and even if I were an expert I would still be JUST as fallible as any other of my fellow human beings. My great sin (one that is regarded by my peers as an asset in any other arena) is a bit of skepticism regarding the completeness of our present knowledge about the total global climate dynamic that politicization indicates. I may be wrong, but there it is.

      That said, just as I do strongly favor including evolution education in public science science I also strongly favor including Earth and climate history (including climate change and impacts on global ecologies and human civilization past and future) in public science education (and I myself am still a student of empirical science, and I will be a student right up to the grave).

  2. I apologize for the typos in my last post. I meant to end the sentence about the views of paleontologists by saying that in my experience, the majority are global warming skeptics, in the ways I noted. Indeed, none of the paleontologists I work with buy into most of the claims of global warming alarmists, and it is not from lack of knowledge or research.

  3. “The data are consistent with the hypothesis that God created urchins with an inherent potential to adjust their internal machinery to accommodate pH (acidity) changes.”
    That hypothesis is unfalsifiable, Mr Thomas.

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